Baseball lost two well-known executives 40 years ago: Warren Giles and Walter O’Malley.
Giles, 82, a World War I veteran, rose through the ranks in his hometown of Rochester, NY, holding several positions in the minor leagues before being promoted to the majors. After working for the Cincinnati Reds from 1936 to 1951, he was tagged for president of the National League and held that position until 1969. Giles was highly regarded by umpires, as he fought for better working conditions and higher wages.
O’Malley, 76, engineered the Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. He had taken control of the Dodgers in 1950, 20 years after earning a law degree from Fordham. O’Malley married the daughter of a former judge and former neighbor.
She was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx prior to their engagement; her larynx had to be removed, which hampered her ability to speak. Still, “she was the same girl that I fell in love with,” he used to say. They were married for almost 50 years and sat through many games together at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
The death that same year of Thurman Munson, the New York Yankees’ 32-year-old star catcher, hit us even harder emotionally. Munson was piloting his private plane when it crashed outside his hometown of Canton, Ohio, on August 2, 1979. Munson had planned to spend an off day with his wife and three children.
It was a tearful funeral as the Yankees paid homage to their captain. Munson had broken in with the Yankees 10 years earlier, in 1969, and compiled a .292 career average. He hit .302 in 1970 and was named American League Rookie of the Year.
Munson was the league’s most valuable player in 1976 and hit a whopping .529 in the World Series. The Yanks lost the series in ’76 but would go on to win back-to-back championships the next two years.
For some reason, Munson took a liking to me, and we always chatted when we met. Two hours before a game in Detroit, I asked if we could do an interview. He suggested that I come to his hotel room the following day, so he could give me all the time needed.
The next day, I encountered a barefoot Munson wearing an undershirt and dark slacks. We made ourselves comfortable and, over the course of almost two hours, he told me he idolized Mickey Mantle growing up and that the toughest pitchers for him to face were Nolan Ryan and Luis Tiant. His two best friends on the Yankees were Roy White and Jim Catfish Hunter.
He also shared that he missed his family and regretted the time he spent away from his children during the baseball season. He didn’t have a favorite city on the road. “It just means another hotel room,” Munson said. He mentioned that he liked to hit in Detroit, with Tiger Stadium’s good hitting background and large crowds. “But,” he added, “when you’re in a slump you don’t want to hit anywhere, and when you’re hitting good it doesn’t matter where you hit.”
Billy Martin was the Yankees manager at the time, and I asked Munson how he liked him and who his favorite manager was. “I loved and respected Ralph Houk as a person and thought he was a heckuva manager. I like Billy, too. They are two different kinds of people and I like each in their own way.”
“What does baseball mean to you?” I asked. “That’s a pretty tough question,” he answered. “To anybody in the game, it has to be a way of life. It could provide a good living and is something you have to enjoy to do it well.
“The biggest thing, I think, is that baseball is for kids. I think that’s something that most people don’t realize. Baseball keeps the older people younger and gives the younger people something to look forward to. Baseball is the kind of pastime that provides a meeting place for young and old.”
Also in 1979, Ken Holtzman retired as the Jewish pitcher with the greatest winning record of all time. He won 174 games (and lost 150), including two no-hitters. In eight World Series games, Holtzman had a 2.55 ERA and compiled a career ERA of 3.49.
The same year, Phil Niekro became the last pitcher to win and lose 20 games in the same season. Phil posted a 21-20 record for the Atlanta Braves, while his brother Joe also won 21 that year for the Houston Astros.